Brazil’s descent into drought chaos says a lot about humanity’s approach to climate change

Brazil’s water crisis has reached historic proportions, but arguably the worst could have been averted if only authorities had heeded the early warning signs; the parallels with our collective approach to climate change are striking.

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Brazil’s worst drought since records began in 1930, provoked by months of below-average rainfall, is on the verge of turning into a major national disaster. Millions of people, particularly around South America’s largest city and the centre of the crisis, São Paulo, have already been affected by periodic outages – of both water and electricity – and experts are increasingly warning of havoc among residents and businesses within weeks, unless a drastic turnaround in rainfall levels or governmental measures occurs. Otherwise, major strategic reserves of water could run completely dry by the middle of the year.

To all intents and purposes, weather conditions have been extraordinary for some time. 2014 was the driest year on record, with São Paulo and surrounding regions receiving barely a third of the normal amount of rainfall, while this January saw around a quarter of the average rainfall (despite it supposedly being the middle of the rainy season). Temperatures have also been above average, which has in itself led to a surge in demand for ever-scarcer drinking water and electricity to power air conditioning units – a problem given that Brazil depends on hydroelectricity for around 70% of its electricity. This combination of factors has led to some of the country’s most important reservoirs to recede to as little as 5% of their overall capacity, with water operators forced to turn to emergency reserves of ‘dead water’ pumped from the very bottom of reservoirs.

This situation is hardly one that has crept up on Paulistas or local and federal authorities. As far back as the end of 2013, there were warning signs that reduced rainfall was driving the Cantareira reservoir system – which supplies more than eight million people in the Greater São Paulo area with drinking water – to record-low levels. Experts repeatedly called for immediate action to be taken, with modest controlling measures such as limits on excessive consumption and efforts to reduce water wastage suggested as an effective means of staving off the worst even if rainfall continued to be stubbornly low. Further action to upgrade the region’s water infrastructure has been urged for even longer.

Emergency ‘dead water’ is pumped from the bottom of Jacarei reservoir – part of the Cantareira system – as authorities try to extract every last drop from depleted water reserves. Photo courtesy of Vagner Campos via IPS.

A huge amount is at stake if the reservoirs do finally run dry. Not only do millions of residents and businesses rely on the system for running water, but Brazil’s dependence on its hydroelectric dams – whose reservoir levels are now near rock-bottom – means that the drought could leave the regional economy barely able to function. Major cities – including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro – already experienced a black-out in January as hydroelectric dams were forced to temporarily close, while residents have long complained that water companies have been cutting off supplies at random by turning the system’s water pressure down.

Now, authorities in São Paulo – the most populous and prosperous region in Brazil – are indicating that they may be forced to implement far more drastic water rationing, allowing just two days of water use each week. Brazil’s already-spluttering economy, until a few short years ago the darling of economists and envy of the developing world, could be plunged into a lengthy and devastating recession if communities continue to be forced into such painful adjustments. Even the world-famous carnaval celebrations have had to be cancelled in some districts, for fear that the increased demand for water would lead to total breakdown among local water systems.

However, for a whole range of possible reasons, the authorities have been painfully slow to respond to the impending crisis and act to ensure that the worst consequences of a total dry-out would not materialise. It took until last month for the governor of São Paulo State and the local water utility Sabesp to even publicly admit that there was a water shortage and that households were indeed receiving less water due to lower water pressure. Even now, the Environment Secretary for Rio de Janeiro state, Andre Correa, is on the one hand admitting that the state is experiencing its worst water crisis in history, and on the other insisting that water rationing will not begin before July, by which point the situation could have descended to catastrophic depths.

Cracked earth at what should be the bottom of the Jaguari dam reservoir. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

From their initial outright denial – of both the scale of the approaching situation and the measures that would need to be taken – to their skirting around the issue as crucial elections approached last October, they have failed to face up to the challenge in the manner that has been so sorely needed. Short-term thinking has trumped the longer-term approach that was needed to stop a bad situation turning into the fiasco that could well now be imminent.

It’s exactly like our collective response to the threat of climate change.

Experts and civil society continue to point out the overwhelming evidence that pumping ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is condemning us to a future of runaway temperature rises, rising sea levels and the wiping out of coastal areas, an increase in the number of extreme weather events such as floods droughts and heat-waves, and climatic changes that will render ever-greater swathes of our planet uninhabitable. Yet our political and business leaders continue – with the notable and honourable exception of a few – to turn a blind eye to the real and present threat that climate change poses to our planet, its inhabitants and economy. Despite research showing that the cost of addressing climate change now would – while significant – be far less than the cost of leaving it til later to deal with the consequences, short-term thinking prevents us (or our leaders) from taking appropriate action.

The parallels between Brazil’s water crisis and the global approach to climate change don’t stop there. In a classic example of what is known among climatologists as a ‘feedback loop’, where the particular aspects of climate change act to speed up the processes that lead to further climatic transformations (such as the melting of the Arctic’s icecaps leading to faster-than-average warming in the region, which in turn causes the icecaps to melt even quicker), experts are beginning to link the historic drought in south-eastern Brazil to climatic changes across the country. Increasing levels of deforestation in the Amazon basin, as well as the near-total destruction of the historic Atlantic Forest, are said to have had an impact on the region’s climate, and in particular on the amount of rainfall.

Scientists are increasingly confident that these changes in the continent’s hydrological cycle are behind the sustained decline in rainfall, and so the risk of rainforests continuing to be damaged and dry out due to deforestation and climate change means that there will be a much higher risk of drought across the rest of Brazil in the future. In other words, what has played out in and around São Paulo over the past year or so may well become the new normal. As one of Brazil’s top climate scientists, Antonio Nobre, warned recently: “If deforestation in the Amazon continues, Sao Paulo will probably dry up. If we don’t act now, we’re lost”.

However, some of those in positions of authority still don’t seem to be grasping the severity of the situation. Mario Moscatelli, a biologist who is also one of Brazil’s leading environmentalists, told Reuters that the authorities’ lack of urgency in responding to the crisis reflects the belief among large segments of Brazilian society that the country’s natural resources are immune to the danger of over-exploitation and depletion. “We have an energy minister who says that God is Brazilian, and will send us rain, and everything will be ok”, Moscatelli told Reuters in an interview. “That’s the kind of thing our authorities are telling the population, when the reality is that we are on the brink of a huge disaster”.

Already, Brazilians are angrily asking why action was not taken earlier to take control of the country’s water crisis, arguing that it would have been much simpler to have nipped the problem in the bud by imposing relatively low-impact controlling measures, instead of allowing the situation to spiral out of control and leave countless communities and businesses in peril. Such demands are certain to grow louder and even angrier if the rationing, outages and rolling blackouts which many consider to now be inevitable really do begin in earnest. Will future generations be asking the same questions of us in years to come, if climate change really does start to show its ugliest side? Let the current situation in Brazil serve as a cautionary tale…

Photo courtesy of EPA via the BBC.
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